Iran could make enough materials to produce a nuclear bomb in just “12 days” a senior US official claimed on Tuesday.
Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Tehran has been a strategic priority in Washington for decades. However, successive US administrations in the US have disagreed on how best to achieve this aim.
In 2015, the US signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, together with Iran and other world powers. The deal placed limitations on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. However, in 2015, the US withdrew from the agreement. How the US will try to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions is now uncertain.
How close is Iran to being capable of building a nuclear bomb?
“Back in 2018, when the previous administration decided to leave the [Iran nuclear deal], it would have taken Iran about 12 months to produce one bomb’s worth of fissile material,” said the US undersecretary for policy Colin Kahl during a session of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“Now it would take about 12 days,” he claimed. “Iran’s nuclear progress since we left the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] has been remarkable.”
According to a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the watchdog found that uranium particles had been enriched to 83.7% purity in Iran’s underground Fordo site.
Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 90% purity or above says the World Nuclear Association. Iran has already been overtly enriching uranium to purity levels of 60% for two years, in breach of the now fragile JCPOA.
Iran dismissed speculation that the recent enrichment percentage was part of a deliberate effort, claiming instead that “unintended fluctuations” were to blame.
The JCPOA was brokered in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, the UK, France, China, and Russia – plus the EU. The deal was intended to put limitations on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In exchange for compliance, sanctions on Tehran would be gradually lifted.
The Obama administration hoped that the JCPOA would be one of President Barack Obama’s key diplomatic achievements. However, in 2018, the Trump administration announced that the US would withdraw from the deal, citing concerns that Iran had not been compliant.
The US promptly reimposed sanctions on Iran, intended to make Tehran reconsider its foreign policy, especially funding, and support for militant groups in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the other parties to the JCPOA remained involved, although there were fears that without Washington’s participation, the deal would become null and void.
In July 2019, Iran announced that it had breached the limit set by the JCPOA on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. The IAEA confirmed this.
In January 2020, following the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Iranian Quds force, by a US drone strike, Tehran announced that it would no longer comply with the limits set by the JCPOA. However, Iran has continued to work with the IAEA, leaving open the possibility of reviving the JCPOA.
Since President Joe Biden took office in 2021, the US government’s intention has been for the US to rejoin the JCPOA, on the condition of Iranian compliance. However, talks have generally stalled without any significant progress.